Earlier this year, soon after we went into lock-down, First Edition Arts (FEA) invited me to be part of their ‘Desert Island Series — The Lockdown Sessions’. In a video shared on FEA’s Facebook page, I introduced five renditions of Carnatic compositions, saying a little bit about why each was special to me. That was the final avatar of the exercise. In this post I share an earlier, longer list of 12 renditions, introduced in the written form.
I have been very lucky — for as long as I can remember, there has been Carnatic (and Hindustani) music playing at home. And all through childhood, I tagged along with my parents to Carnatic concerts at the Madras Music Academy and with my grandparents to the Gayana Samaja concerts in Bangalore, during the summer holidays. I learned singing for a year before going to Middlebury College in the U.S. for my undergraduate studies in 1997.
Funnily it was in Vermont that my journey as an active listener of Carnatic music took off. I even had a weekly radio show on Indian classical music named ‘Ragamalika’ on WRMC 91.1 FM — undoubtedly a turning point in Vermont radio history. In the four years of Ragamalika, I only ever received one “call-in” to the show. It was from our Indian-American Econometrics professor and his precise words were “Aye Vishnu, what time is cricket practice man?” My sterling broadcast career resumed in 2007 when I was at the Indian School of Business, with a weekly show for ISB Radio. This time I came up with a more memorable name — ‘Who is Pattammal?’
In the last several years, my urge to share my experience of Carnatic music has taken a new form — writing. I also started singing lessons four years ago after a gap of 18 years. I write better than I sing, or so I hope. Even after being an active listener for over two decades, I discover compositions, artistes and even ragas, every day. So, creating a finite list of “Desert Island Tunes” has been an incredibly torturous exercise. Equally, I have thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgia trip and the rediscovery of some favourite pieces.
1. Balamuralikrishna — Pahi Parvatha Nandini — Arabhi Raga — Swati Tirunal
Balamuralikrishna was an absolute favourite, especially of my father, growing up. The first Carnatic songs I learned to recognize were his signature renditions of Bhadrachala Ramadas’s Paluke Bangaramayanna and Thyagaraja’s Seetha Kalyana Vaibhogame. He had such a reputation in the household that once when unwell on summer vacation in Bangalore, I refused to be taken to the doctor. I insisted on being treated by “Dr. Balamuralikrishna”, or by no one at all. Luckily, the sickness wasn’t life threatening.
The first Carnatic music tape from the family collection that I recall playing for my own listening pleasure was his recording of Thyagaraja’s Pancharatna krithis. Among the five songs, Sadinchane in Arabhi was my favourite (and annoyingly split in two between Side A and Side B). Arabhi is an optimistic and energetic raga in the best possible way — without being cutesy, cloying, overeager, or annoyingly juvenile. Unlike many other artistes who tend to get a little overexcited when singing Arabhi, BMK always treated it in a leisurely, careful, almost nurturing manner which had the somewhat paradoxical effect of imbibing the raga with even more heft.
I’ve selected a recording from his concert at the ‘Navaratri Mandapam’ in Thiruvananthapuram. On each night of Navaratri, a concert is held at the Mandapam. The ‘main piece’ for each night is fixed and is one of nine songs on the Devi composed by Swati Tirunal for each of the nine nights. The song for the ninth night is Pahi Parvatha Nandini. One of the many unique performance traditions for this festival is that the main piece is to be preceded not just by alapana, but also tanam. While tanam is usually sung unaccompanied, it is accompanied by the mridangam at the Navaratri Mandapam concerts.
2. Maharajapuram Santhanam — Rama Ninnu Nammina — Mohanam Raga — Thyagaraja
Until my last years of schooling, my consumption of Carnatic music had been largely osmotic. It is around this time that Music Today came out with a slew of beautifully produced albums of Carnatic and Hindustani music. This recording is from its Maestro’s Choice series and was part of my mother’s tape collection. The Music Today recordings were different not just because of the quality of its recordings, but the overall care in production. For instance, this song was accompanied with a small note from Maharajapuram Santhanam explaining that he had chosen this composition because it was a favourite of his father and guru Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer and because his father was famous for expositions in the raga Mohanam. This intimate titbit immediately predisposed me to both the singer and the song.
I am especially fond of this rendition as it was the first time that I consciously listened to and looked forward to listening to a raga alapana. We had a Walkman at home, and I would play this song in bed night after night for weeks on end, to savour the short alapana. With my confidence boosted by my engagement with an alapana, I started paying more close attention to the variations when each line of the song was repeated — only much later would I learn that these are called ‘sangathis’. I was also in awe of the way the word “bhrina” in the anupallavi line Pamara jana dura hung interminably in the air. I did not know any terms of the Carnatic trade yet, but for the first time, I did not feel like an absolute noob — I had listened to and engaged an alapana on my own terms.
3. Mysore Doreswami Iyengar — Ee Vasudha — Sahana Raga — Thyagaraja
Another series from the Music Today stable was ‘Thyagaraja Masterpieces’. One of the artistes in the series was vainika Doreswamy Iyengar. I devoured the album, in which he played pieces in the ragas Kaikavasi, Reethigowla, Salaga Bhairavi, Begada and Sahana. I absolutely fell in love with Sahana because of this piece and it became the first raga I actively sought out and courted.
If you are new to Carnatic music, this is as good a piece as any with which to begin. I don’t know any raga that is more welcoming or any style of music that is easier on the ear than Doreswamy Iyengar’s. He is accompanied by the unobtrusive Vellore Ramabhadran, my favourite mridangam player.
4. Ramnad Krishnan — Abhimanamennadu — Begada Raga — Patnam Subramania Iyer
In 1997, I set off for Middlebury College in rural Vermont, in the U.S.A. Middlebury was a bustling metropolis of 8,000 inhabitants including 2,000 students. It even had a Main Street. Strangely, it was in this corner of the world that my journey as a rasika really took off. Maybe it was because I had been learning Carnatic music for a year in Madras, just before leaving or maybe it was because I suddenly felt like a cultural ambassador in this remote land. But largely it was due to the Middlebury College Music Library, which had a collection of 300+ Carnatic and Hindustani music LPs and CDs. Crucially, most of these albums were released by foreign music labels and were marketed to an audience unfamiliar with the music. The liner notes were therefore packed with useful information — on the musicians, ragas and the notes that comprised them, talas, different performance styles, different forms of improvisations. Two such albums that were particularly eye-opening were Nonesuch’s twin recordings of Ramnad Krishnan, titled Kaccheri and Vidwan. And no wonder — I learned later that the notes were written by great artistes themselves– T. Viswanathan and Jon Higgins. These encounters with liner notes are what spurred me to listen longer, listen wider and listen more actively.
Of all the compositions in these two albums, the one that affected me the most was the one in Begada, a composition of Patnam Subramania Iyer. There are many things I loved and continue to love about this rendition. First, the alapana sounded like I was being spoken to by someone in an Indian language — coaxing, understanding and optimistic in its intonations. Second, the brisk pace of the rendition, almost relentless, maintaining a smooth momentum while the music itself moved left and right, up and down. Third, the way the accompanists add so much, and with so much grace. I especially appreciate the democratic spirit of T. Ranganathan on the mridangam, sharing equal time with V. Nagarajan on the kanjira. I also fell in love with the tone of Nagarajan’s kanjira. But most of all, the reason I never tire of going back to this song is that slight tug or “pull” and ten descent at the beginning of both the anupallavai (“ibharaja…”) and charanam (“anna vastramu”). For some reason, it pulls directly at my heart.
[The song has been mislabelled on Youtube]:
5. G.N. Balasubramaniam — Sri Subramanyaya Namasthe — Kambhoji Raga — Muthuswami Dikshitar
At Middlebury, there was some sort of fundraising event in conjunction with UNICEF, organized by the international students. A fellow student who had trained for many years in Carnatic music wanted to sing, and I was to accompany her on a ghatam. I was very excited because this was a shot at redemption. I had taken mridangam lessons for about three years until I was about eight years old. One day my mridangam teacher, a very sweet and patient man, said to my mother “I think Vishnu needs a break.” I thought to myself “yes, fair enough, we’ve had a long class” as we had been at it for an hour at that point. But what he meant was that I needed a break from the mridangam — it was his polite way of saying I was a lost cause. So ended my lessons. While personally very satisfying, the Middlebury performance marked the beginning, peak and end of my career as a percussive artiste.
The song we selected was Shri Subramanyaya Namasthe in the raga Kambhoji. When my maternal grandfather recognized my budding interest in Carnatic Music, he gave me a few specimens from his vast cassette collection (most of them transferred from the original spool tape) AIR broadcast and concert recordings. I cherished these dearly. One of these tapes was of GNB, and in it, this song. I prepped for our little performance by accompanying the great GNB again and again and again.
As I did so, I fell in love with the syllabic poetry of the lyrics, the feeling of a sound structural scaffolding that you get with most Dikshitar kritis and the enveloping majesty of the raga. From then on, I started paying closer attention to the identity of the composer, and not just the raga . In my experience, more so than with any other raga, what I recall most vividly after listening to Kambhoji is the feeling I had when listening to it, rather than any specific aspect of it. This is a recording from a live concert in which GNB is accompanied by Lalgudi Jayaraman on the violin and C.S. Murugabhoopathy on the mridangam. There is a mridangam solo at the end that is unfortunately cut off.
6. D.K. Pattammal — Dachukovalena — Thodi Raga — Thyagaraja
A major milestone for me as a listener came when I heard D.K. Pattammal sing Thyagaraja’s Dachukovalena, a composition in the raga Thodi. Thodi, with its ‘heavy’ feel and distinctive use of gamakas is considered a major domo raga, perhaps even the greatest of all Carnatic ragas. It is also very much an acquired taste. I never really got any pleasure out of it and it never seemed to leave me in a decent mood. I would actively avoid listening to it. Until I heard this rendition by D.K. Pattammal.
Pattammal’s voice early in her career was naturally sweet but in most of her later year recordings it is low and gravelly and doesn’t sound very pliable. Her pronunciations while always correct are at times harsh, especially on the consonants. Her music is no-nonsense and exact and doesn’t aim to please. But at the same time, it is never dull or boring. There is a joyful, urgent, and emphatic energy that seeps through every exact note. It is as though her music is Carnatic Music, as it wants to be, not for the Gods, not for the listener, but for itself and perhaps also, for Pattammal. The complete lack of pretension or extraneous intent in Pattamal’s music makes it surprisingly captivating.
I do not know if anyone else could have opened up Thodi to me like she did. After that, there was no looking back — I took on all the ‘heavy’ ragas I could find head on. A whole new universe was thrown open to me because of this song.
D. K. Pattammal — Vocal — D.K.Pattammal — Download or Listen Free — JioSaavn
Listen to D. K. Pattammal — Vocal songs Online on JioSaavn. Hindi music album by Thyagaraja, D.K.Pattammal 1…
7. M.L. Vasanthakumari — E Tavunara — Kalyani Raga — Thyagaraja
I would take anything MLV has ever sung with me to a desert island if I could. But the raga I most associate with her is Kalyani. Kalyani is a dazzling raga, capable of incredible range and depth. Because it is so popular, it is also well-worn and can sound pedestrian at times. But the ever spontaneous, ever creative MLV always kept it fresh.
8. M.S. Subbulakshmi — Kamakshi Amba — Bhairavi Raga — Shyama Sastri
If we were to send one example of Carnatic music in a space probe for other beings to discover, I would send this one — M.S. Subbulakshmi singing Shyama Sastri’s Bhairavi raga swarajathi. M.S. was Carnatic music greatest ambassador and icon. I reckon for most rasikas, Bhairavi is the quintessential Carnatic raga. It is old and organic. Its identity goes well beyond its scale and is predicated on nuance. It is gamaka-laden but still accessible. It is instantly recognizable. And if you were to ask which composition most fully captures its essence, I would say it is this.
An added advantage is the swarajathi form of the composition with each line first sung as swara before being repeated as lyric, making it easier to understand. This rendition also has four of the five forms of Carnatic improvisation — an alapana, extensive neraval on the line “Shyamakrishna Sahodhari…”, a brief passage of kalpanaswara passage, and a very brief taniavartanam (exposition of percussion). A complete, true and exemplary specimen of Carnatic music.
9. Voleti Venkateswarulu — Ragam, Tanam, Pallavi — Shankarabharanam Raga
There are some sportsmen we admire for their ability to make everything look so deceptively effortless and natural. They are easy on the senses. Think Edberg or Federer, Gower or Laxman. I think of Voleti Venkateswaulu in the same way. His voice was supremely pliable and never under stress. He experimented expertly, but never made a show of it. If I had the talent, I would want to be a musician like him. Here is a compact but meaty Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi in the raga Shankarabharanam, with ragamalika swaras in Varali, Sahana and Revati.
10. Sanjay Subrahmanyan — Palinchu Kamakshi — Madhyamavati Raga — Shyama Sastri
Of the modern masters, I have derived great joy from the music of Vijay Siva, S. Sowmya, T.M. Krishna, Jayanthi Kumaresh and the Malladi Brothers and among others. But in terms of sheer number of listening hours, breadth and consistency of experience, I owe a great deal to Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Going to a Sanjay concert for me is like going to an excellent banquet — I am guaranteed satisfaction, but I also know I will return slightly exhausted from sheer over-consumption. I really fell in love with this composition because of Sanjay Subramahmanyam’s recording of it for Charsur Digital Works in an album title “Trinity”. Here is an extensive rendition, from a live concert.
11. T.M. Krishna — Paradevata Brihatkuchamba — Dhanyasi Raga — Muthuswami Dikshitar
If for me the Sanjay Subrahmanyam concert experience is like a buffet, then a TMK concert these days is like a tasting menu. I don’t quite know what I’ll get, though I know there will be some exquisite moments and that I will be paying attention right through. I could go home on a high or wishing he had spent more time on this or that.
Whether through his experiments with concert practice and content, collaborations, writings or lecture-demonstrations, he has over time and in small doses in small doses pushed me into a deeper and more inquisitive engagement with Carnatic music. He is also responsible for my first ever blogpost on a piece of Carnatic music, way back in 2010. I wrote an embarrassingly lyrical ode to the raga Dhanyasi in state of mesmerized stupor after listening to his rendition of Shyama Sastri’s Meenalochani Brova. From then, I was hooked to both Dhanyasi, one of my absolute favourite ragas, and to writing about music.
12. T.R. Mahalingam — Shantamu Leka Sowkhyamu Ledhu — Sama Raga — Thyagaraja
T.R. Mahalingam (‘Mali’) was a once-in-a-century genius who revolutionized flute-playing with a technique that allowed for far more fluidity of notes and brought a new tonal fullness to the instrument. He was also rhythmically and arithmetically adept and kept his accompanists on their toes with complex swara patterns. He was also an erratic performer, sometimes not showing up, or showing up late, sometimes playing in spurts with interminable pauses between them, sometimes ending a concert abruptly because the will to keep going was gone. He was clearly troubled and in his later years also complained of shooting pain in his head. He eventually passed at the age of 60, of a cerebral haemorrhage.
Knowing all this, I find this short rendition of Thyagaraja’s Shantamu Lekha Sowkhyamu Ledu deeply poignant. Thyagaraja addresses the song to his own mind, saying that without a certain equanimity, a certain peace of mind, happiness or contentment is impossible and immaterial. He gives example after example of achievement — having a family, having wealth, being reputed as a great devotee, being able to recite the Lord’s name over and over, knowledge of religious texts, performing rituals — only to dismiss them all utterly pointless without peace of mind. You can hear Mali’s, and Thyagaraja’s pleading desperation, and hope, in this rendition.